Escapism or Liberation?

Escapism or Liberation? Portugal’s Landmark 1974 Coup is Recalled

Part 1: To the Elections of April 1975

Tom Gallagher

50 years on from the coup of 1974 which toppled a durable regime of the authoritarian right and quickly led on to the chaotic departure from Portugal’s overseas territories, what happened and what remaining significance does the ‘Carnation revolution’ of 25 April 1974 in Lisbon and the resulting revolution still possess.

Tom Gallagher is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Bradford. His book Europe’s Leadership Famine 1950-2022: Portraits of Defiance and Decay was published in 2023. He has published several books on modern Portugal and he is working on a new one provisionally entitled, Portugal and the Modern Western Journey: Adaptation, Resistance and Disenchantment, 1890-2025

Reminiscing in 2005, the then 84-year-old Vasco Gonçalves, Prime Minister of Portugal at the height of the revolutionary turbulence of 1974-5, had no doubts that it had been ‘the happiest time’ of his life.

This much-contested figure known for rousing speeches, had grounds for his satisfaction. Unprecedented advances had been made by communists in a West European country. A longstanding communist sleeper in the army who had remained undetected, Gonçalves had suddenly emerged from obscurity on 25 April 1974. On that day, a coup against a poorly-led right-wing autocracy catapulted Portugal from a sleepy backwater to a communist cuckoo in the NATO nest. Henry Kissinger, then the US Secretary of State, was soon convinced that Portugal was lost to the West and would follow Cuba as a second north Atlantic Soviet dependency.

Three months after the coup Gonçalves was prime minister after moderate officers who had made some of the decisive moves against the old order were outmanoeuvred by the communist party. For a year, a favourite refrain of Gonçalves, that the people and the army were in harmonious alliance, seemed to be confirmed by the pace of events.

In March 1975 the most comprehensive wave of nationalisations seen in any west European country since 1945 occurred as the radicals tightened their grip. Not only were the banks and largest private firms nationalised, but vast tracts of privately-owned land were seized.

Beyond Portugal the empire, mainly located in Africa, was scuttled. This was the most momentous occurrence to follow the Lisbon coup. The victories enjoyed by pro-Moscow liberation movements in Angola and Mozambique dashed the survival hopes of the white regime in Rhodesia and in time put such intense pressure on the apartheid regime in South Africa that it cracked fifteen years later.

The political awakening of Portugal and the geopolitical transformation that it provoked will be celebrated on the 50th anniversary in public events long in preparation. In the end, Portugal’s rulers satisfied themselves with pledging to build socialism (written into the 1976 Constitution) rather than going fully communist. The descendants of these radicals carry considerable weight in the media, the still large state sector and in the left-wing electoral majority that existed from 2015 until elections held last month. The surviving heroes of the Armed Forces Movement (MFA) will be lionised. School children, taught for decades about the dark nights of fascism that Portugal supposedly endured before 1974, will not be overlooked. Parliament will pass solemn resolutions and hear stirring speeches.

Inevitably, myths about the revolution will be given a fresh lick of paint and ostentatiously paraded. The 1974-75 power-struggles saw dizzy reversals of fortune, unlikely alliances, fierce enmities among forces who on the surface had much in common, alleged betrayals, and last-minute compromises to avoid civil-war in the tinder-box that Portugal had become by the autumn of 1975.

The myths that depict an idealistic movement with a concrete vision for Portugal, only for it to be frustrated by domestic counter-revolutionaries and the sabotage of the great powers are unlikely to be subject to close scrutiny. Surprisingly few books have been published on the 1974-75 events in Portugal. By contrast, rather more continue to appear about the New State, the name of the predecessor regime, for nearly all of the time under the smooth but firm command of the civilian economics professor, Dr António de Oliveira Salazar, prime minister from 1932 to 1968.

It might be worth exploring some of the assumptions made about the whole revolutionary period to see how well they stand up to scrutiny.

The claim that the coup was a bold undertaking full of risk and uncertainty, involving heroism and cool nerves is perhaps one that is most frequently aired and perhaps easiest to excuse.

Numerous coups, revolts, mutinies and conspiracies had been staged against the dictatorship in its 48-year-old existence and all ended in failure. The ‘movement of the captains’ succeeded with few shots being fired and only a handful of fatalities because the New State regime had grown brittle. Salazar’s successor, the law professor Marcelo Caetano had never mastered the controls of the authoritarian system. It had been devised to suit its creator’s preference for divide and rule over various factions and interest groups, not least the military. Caetano had wanted to resign in the weeks before the coup only to be overruled by the Head of State, a naval officer who insisted that everyone must hang together in the face of rumbling unrest about the colonial war in Africa, now in its thirteenth year. The armoured cars that rumbled into Lisbon on 25 April 1974 had filled a vacuum at the heart of power. The PIDE, the secret police, which had long been excoriated by the regime’s enemies, was easily neutralised. Indeed, the PIDE had learned of the plotting weeks earlier and sat on its hands due to the paralysis at the heart of government..

Those choreographing the celebrations are likely to keep a discreet silence about the military’s role in the subsequent upheavals. Officers came and went in the following two years who were manipulated by the political left or were unable to consolidate their positions due to political inexperience or naivety. Arguably, the ineptness of General António de Spínola, whose book ‘Portugal and the Future’, calling for a federal solution in Africa, helped trigger the April revolt, was crucial. He was provisional President until September 1974 only to prove out-of-his depth in face of the machinations of the left. In March 1975 he was tricked into staging a counter-coup after being told that a massacre of military moderates was imminent. He fled into exile and this clever conspiracy was the signal for the expropriation of property.

The radical officers of the MFA who then came to the fore proved to have no idea of how to translate their revolutionary fervour into a formula for cementing long-term power. It had been professional grievances due to the length and conditions of military service which had lain behind the 1974 revolt. Encouraged by the civilian left, flamboyant officers like Major Otelo de Carvalho projected themselves as military guarantors of a system of ‘popular power’. But this new revolutionary order remained dreamy and inchoate. As 1975 wore on, the MFA acquired new responsibilities until in the summer it was officially declared to be the equivalent of the liberation movements coming to power in former African territories.

But the military radical, eulogised in the revolutionary agitprop that swept Portugal, comprised a minority of the armed forces with the exception of the navy. Bitter power struggles within the civilian left diluted the hopes of these centurions, a mixture of idealistic and ambitious soldiers. The incoherence of the military left was cruelly exposed when ‘cultural dynamisation’ campaigns in the countryside that were meant to instil radical awareness among the conservative peasantry, fell flat. Local resentment at being patronised by these meddling soldiers raised the first doubts in the minds of some about whether it would be possible for the military to act as a vanguard of an audacious social experiment.

Fifty years on, the degree of infighting exhibited on the far-left in 1974-75 is impossible to overlook. This is awkward not least because today the main custodians of the commemorative pageant are the very same left-wing forces whose mutual hatreds did much to shorten the experiment in ‘popular power’. The Communist Party (PCP) alienated everyone else at different stages. First, by removing the dictatorship of the proletariat as a key party goal, it offended the smaller but more vigorous Maoist, Trotskyite and other far-left sects. The Maoists in particular, grouped in the MRPP, (Re-Organized Movement of the Party of the Proletariat) had no hesitation in branding the pro-Soviet communists as ‘social fascists’.

Fascism became a much abused term. Álvaro Cunhal, the steely doctrinaire in charge of the PCP, never ceased warning of a fascist recovery. But organized backers of the former regime were small in number and dispersed. Until the closing months of the revolution, the main clashes occurred between Cunhal’s movement and its left-wing detractors. The battles were particularly intense in the universities. Classes and exams had been suspended for a year. Radical ultras were carrying out extensive purges of staff at all levels. The MRPP was demanding that old regime supporters be hauled before popular tribunals to receive summary justice. So fearful were the young communists in the universities for their own safety that they persuaded Major Carvalho, who ran a force of commandos meant to ensure the vestiges of internal order, to detain no less than 432 Maoist militants in May 1975.

Intended by much of the left to be a powerless symbol, the Portuguese people got the right to speak for themselves on 25 April 1975 when elections were held for a constituent assembly. Civilian and military radicals fretted, but the desire for a free election after so many years without one, was unquenchable. After all, ‘liberty’ was the word that had come to symbolise the purity and promise of the revolution…

Part 2 will be published next week.

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